Opinion

Tom Dillard: It started small, but Van Buren County finally hit a home run

Van Buren County in north central Arkansas is the location of Damascus, a tiny village astraddle the main highway between Conway and Harrison. Located along the southern reaches of the Ozark Mountains, Van Buren County is home to much of Greers Ferry Lake.

Taking lands from Conway, Independence and Izard counties, the territorial Legislature created Van Buren County in 1833. It was named in honor of President Martin Van Buren of New York. John L. Lafferty, an early settler near the Little Red River, is considered the father of the county. He was appointed the first county judge and later served three terms in the state Legislature.

The new county was without any real towns, so a settlement in the eastern part, derisively called Mudtown, served as the first county seat. The town was soon renamed Bloomington; today, it lies beneath the waters of Greers Ferry Lake.

At first the new county used the residence of farmer Obadiah Marsh as the courthouse. A new log courthouse was constructed by volunteers in the time-honored tradition of a barn raising, most of it finished in one day. The county had a population of 1,518 by 1840.

In 1842, voters decided to move the county seat to the centrally located town of Clinton. The Clinton Post Office opened in December 1833, named for the late DeWitt Clinton, a former mayor of New York City, a U.S. senator and the sixth governor of New York.

DeWitt Clinton and President Van Buren were both from New York, but they were not necessarily allies. Van Buren was of Dutch heritage -- his birth name was Maartin Van Buren -- and he grew up speaking Dutch, not learning English until he started school. He is the only U.S. president to speak English as a second language.

The first courthouse in Clinton was also of log construction, built using volunteers. A few years later, funds were found to build a two-story frame structure, which served for 20 years until burned by bushwhackers during the Civil War. In 1869, another two-story frame courthouse was opened, replaced in 1934 during the New Deal.

Little Rock architects Frank Erhart and Howard Eichenbaum designed the building in what some describe as an Ozark mountain variety of art deco style, built of locally quarried reddish sandstone. At 43 by 100 feet in size, it is the smallest courthouse in Arkansas.

Van Buren County was badly divided by the Civil War. Given its hilly terrain and rocky soil, plantation agriculture did not exist, and few enslaved people lived in the area. Many local residents tried to avoid serving in the Confederate army, and not a few joined a clandestine "Peace Society." At least 27 county residents were arrested.

Christopher Denton, a Peace Society member there, avoided capture by Confederate authorities and raised his own home guard to protect local unionists. Two other unionist leaders were Edmond Stobaugh and Thomas Jefferson Williams, both Disciples of Christ preachers.

Van Buren County was in deep trouble by the end of the Civil War. The courthouse had been burned, a large number of widows were challenged to feed their children, and, without a bank until 1903, investment capital was nonexistent. As late as 1896, the Cook family of Botkinburg was still taking their hogs on foot to market in Little Rock, a 110-mile trail drive. Even turkeys and geese were sometimes marched overland to market.

Public education was slow to make its appearance there. The first high school, a subscription school named the Clinton Male and Female Academy, opened in 1879.

The county slumbered economically until 1910 when the Missouri and North Arkansas Railroad -- constructed by Irish and Italian laborers -- built a depot at Shirley, about 10 miles east of Clinton. Shirley soon emerged as a center of a thriving lumber industry.

Another sawmill town, Choctaw, grew up about five miles south of Clinton. The community also had grist mills, a cotton gin and numerous merchants. Choctaw High School, dating to 1903, was considered an unusually good school. One of the early churches in the community was a Disciples of Christ congregation, established in 1888. It later switched to the historically related but much more conservative Churches of Christ.

Choctaw residents have been baseball fanatics from the early years of the town. The first local game was played in 1890 when the game was not well known. One early player recalled that the team had only one ball -- called a "dead red." The ball was "red in color and as it was played with, it became egg shaped and when hit or thrown, it would go end over end." That did not prevent the town from developing a first -- a baseball team.

Perhaps the most famous athlete from Van Buren County was a female baseball player from Choctaw, Glenna Sue Kidd. She was born in 1933 to William M. and Julia Kidd. Glenna was a pitcher and played baseball with her brothers before entering Clinton High School, where she shocked many by being accepted on the boys' baseball team.

Glenna Kidd was reported to have "a hard fastball and an assortment of breaking balls, including a deceptive curveball ..." In 1949, as a high school student, she was invited to pitch for the professional Springfield Sallies. After pitching a no-hitter, Glenna was invited to join the team, which she did as soon as she graduated from high school in 1950.

Van Buren County received an economic shot in the arm in 1962 when a hydroelectric dam was built on the Little Red River in neighboring Cleburne County. The resulting 40,000-acre Greers Ferry Lake extended deep into Van Buren County. Other developments followed, including a resort-retirement community known as Fairfield Bay located on the line between Van Buren and Cleburne counties. It started out as a private venture and in 1993 was incorporated as a city. About 2,500 people live there today.

Van Buren County had a population of 17,295 in 2010, while Clinton had 2,602.

Tom Dillard is a historian and retired archivist living near Glen Rose in rural Hot Spring County. This column first appeared in May 2020; he's taking this week off. Email him at [email protected].

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